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May 4, 2007

Mailbag: SEC loaded with quarterbacks

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He will be working all summer to get you ready for the start of Fall practice.
Want to start an argument?

Start a list of the Southeastern Conference's best quarterbacks, and sit back and wait for the debate to begin.

The insults won't be far behind, either.

SEC fans are always intense, and with the 2007 season looking like a wide-open race especially in the Eastern Division the intensity may be ratcheted up a notch. Fans are ready to pounce if they feel their players and teams have been overlooked.

At least one of the reasons the SEC should be so competitive is because so many experienced quarterbacks return. That's ironic because most observers view LSU as the favorite to win the conference championship and the Tigers are among the very few teams that will have a new starting quarterback.

Tennessee, South Carolina, Auburn, Alabama and even Kentucky have proven quarterbacks returning, so they cannot be completely dismissed.

Oh yeah, Georgia, too. Anyone omitting Georgia should be prepared to duck. Bulldogs fans are among the first to pounce.

Olin's Mailbag
Good company at quarterback

You haven't said anything about Matthew Stafford at Georgia. After a rough few games and low stats, he led the Dawgs to three straight wins over ranked teams and is poised and ready for a breakout year. Why don't you mention him and the Dawgs, who are a dark horse contender for the SEC East?

-- Price in Seattle
I agree Stafford could have a "breakout" year in 2007, but he has to play well to prove he's among the best QBs in the SEC. The league returns some good ones in Tennessee's Erik Ainge, Kentucky's Andre' Woodson, Alabama's John Parker Wilson and Vanderbilt's Chris Nickson, among others.

Give Stafford credit for taking his lumps as a true freshman and improving as the season progressed. This spring, he gave every reason to believe he will continue to get better.

But let's not get too carried away by that three-game stretch in which Georgia defeated Auburn, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech to close the season. Stafford was solid, but far from spectacular in that span. He averaged 13 completions for 173 yards and one touchdown.

That streak was more about Georgia's opponents committing at least three turnovers in those games. Virginia Tech, in fact, committed four turnovers in the fourth quarter of the Georgia's 31-24 come-from-behind victory in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

Stafford did hit a nice 41-yard completion on a touchdown drive in the fourth quarter, but keep in mind that the Bulldogs' scoring drives in the fourth quarter covered 43, 8 and 1 yards because turnovers set them up with great field position.

Stafford's growth is the main reason that Georgia isn't considered a dark horse in the SEC East. The Bulldogs have as good a chance as any other team in what should be a wide-open race.

Stafford may indeed develop into the SEC's best QB. The Bulldogs' secondary, led by CB Paul Oliver, should be the best in the conference.

However, Georgia is also counting on a collection of junior college transfers and redshirt freshmen to bolster its offensive line. Also, the front seven of the defense must be rebuilt. The Bulldogs also must go to Alabama, Tennessee and Florida.

But every team in the East has issues. Florida must rebuild its defense. Tennessee's Ainge must show he can have another outstanding season, but do it without his top receivers. South Carolina, Kentucky and Vanderbilt must overcome history.

So, Georgia has as good a chance as any in the SEC East.

Circling the date

Do you honestly think Missouri can beat Nebraska? I think Nebraska is just going to throttle Mizzou.

-- Austin in Lincoln
As of today, I'd anticipate Nebraska would win that matchup, but I think it would be a close game. There is no reason to believe Missouri wouldn't have a great chance to win.

First of all, the Tigers will have one of the most explosive offenses in the nation with QB Chase Daniel, TEs Chase Coffman and Martin Rucker, WR Will Franklin and RB Tony Temple all returning from a unit which averaged almost 31 points per game last season.

Meanwhile, Nebraska must rebuild its defensive line. There is also uncertainty at corner after Zack Bowman suffered another knee injury. Without him, I think the Cornhuskers defense could be vulnerable.

That said, so will Missouri's defense. Nebraska will also have an explosive offense with QB Sam Keller and WRs Maurice Purify, Nate Swift and Terrence Nunn.

Each team will probably score in the 30s in that game.

Also, the game is in Columbia this year, so that works in Missouri's favor.

Chompin' at the bit

Why is everyone saying that Florida should be ranked in the top five? They won't even win the Eastern Division of the SEC. Georgia and Tennessee have better playmakers and more experience. Is Florida turning into one of those schools that always gets preseason top 10 no matter how good people think they will be.

-- Dakota in Danville, Va.
First of all, yes, Florida is getting to that point where it's always going to be considered as a top-10 team because people think they're that good.

Why? If coming off a national championship isn't enough, consider that four of Florida's last five recruiting classes have been ranked among the nation's top 10 by Rivals.com. All five were in the top 15, and the 2007 class was ranked first. The 2006 class was ranked second and the 2003 class was ranked second.

That means the Gators have a lot of talent - even after losing much of their starting lineup to the NFL.

I agree that Georgia and Tennessee will contend in the SEC East, but I disagree with your "playmakers" appraisal. Does Georgia or Tennessee have anyone as explosive as Percy Harvin? Or for that matter, do they have anyone as explosive as Bubba Caldwell?

Yeah, both have more experience at QB especially Tennessee but you've got to admit the thought of Tim Tebow running coach Urban Meyer's offense will be intriguing. We'll see how effective Tebow is as a passer. We already know he can run.

Defensively, the Gators have a lot of holes to fill, but there are talented players on the roster just waiting for a chance to play. DE Derrick Harvey has All-American potential.

I'm not sure Florida is the best team in the SEC East, but who is? That race will be wide open. But discounting the Gators, I believe, would be a grave error.

A common thread

The 2007 Michigan Wolverines remind me a lot of last year's Ohio State Buckeyes with key, experienced offensive players returning and a young, inexperienced defense. In your estimation what are the odds Michigan will be able to fix its defensive problems from a year ago and challenge for a national title?

-- Will in East Lansing
What's the world coming to? A Wolverines fan in East Lansing is comparing Michigan to Ohio State. Well, it was foretold that lambs would lay down with lions.

Actually, it's an accurate observation considering Ohio State had six defensive players drafted in 2006 and Michigan had five taken last weekend.

I thought Ron English did a marvelous job in his first season as defensive coordinator, but next year will be much more difficult without Leon Hall, Alan Branch, LaMarr Woodley and David Harris. The secondary obviously needs to get better after Ohio State and USC threw for more than 300 yards in the Wolverines' final two games last season.

True freshman Donovan Warren, rated a five-star prospect by Rivals.com, will likely see a lot of playing time - and might even jump into the starting lineup.

The Wolverines also have holes to plug at linebacker, but redshirt freshman Obi Ezeh drew high praise from Lloyd Carr this spring. Up front, Terrance Taylor will anchor the line and Will Johnson was honored for his performance during the spring.

Although the unsettled CB situation is somewhat troubling, the Wolverines will be in the national championship picture. The offense will be tremendous and the defense will be good enough. Though the schedule is scary, Oregon, Notre Dame, Penn State and Ohio State all go to Ann Arbor.

The Longhorn review

Please offer your comments/thoughts about Texas' upcoming season. Do you foresee Texas playing in a BCS game?

-- Ragon in Dallas
Ask me about the BCS game again after that first weekend in October. Despite all the starters A&M returns and all the improvement at Oklahoma State, my guess is the Big 12 South winner will be decided by who wins between Texas and Oklahoma on Oct. 6.

Based on last season's outcome, that obviously isn't always the case. However, the odds are in my favor kind of like picking the South representative to win the conference championship.

Anyway, the Longhorns' have their liabilities particularly in a secondary which lost first-round NFL Draft choices Michael Griffin and Aaron Ross.

However, their assets outweigh those liabilities. Colt McCoy is a proven quarterback and has obvious leadership skills. Three players return who have started on the offensive line. The receiving corps is talented and deep. The defensive line, with DT Derek Lokey returning from injury, will be one of the best in the Big 12. The linebackers should be improved.

The secondary does remain a question, but in the last six years defensive coordinator Duane Akina has had six defensive backs that were fourth round draft choices or higher. You've got to respect his track record and give him the benefit of the doubt that he'll find someone to step up back there.

Plus, the Texas spring roster included eight defensive backs who were rated either four- or five-star recruits by Rivals.com, so the talent is there.

Also, the Longhorns have a very favorable schedule. They play TCU, Kansas State, Nebraska and Texas Tech in Austin, and will be solid favorites in every game leading up to Oklahoma.

If the Longhorns get past OU, they should be in excellent position to play in a BCS bowl and get into the national championship picture. Of course, they will have to avoid a late-season fade like they experienced last year.

Fresh impact

What freshman do you see making the biggest impact this year?

-- Alex in Chicago
I'm going to assume you mean true freshman.

Of course, so much attention is always put on the highly-touted QBs. Because of that fact, the first inclination might be to list Jimmy Clausen at Notre Dame or Willy Korn at Clemson. The problem there is that neither of them is a sure bet to start.

So, you've got to look for the highly rated prospect that's figures to be high on the depth chart immediately. Under that criteria, Marvin Austin of North Carolina quickly comes to mind because the Tar Heels desperately needs help - and Austin can definitely provide some.

However, it's actually another newcomer from Washington D.C. that figures to make the most immediate and perhaps most significant impact.

Receiver Arrelious Benn, from Washington's Dunbar High School, enrolled early at Illinois and was the star of the spring. He had five catches for 145 yards and rushed for 64 more in the spring game.

Illinois' leading receiver last season only had 30 catches, so Benn figures to step in right away and upgrade the offense.

Lurking in the shadows

With most of the talk in this state being about the 'Saban Era" in Tuscaloosa, the Auburn team has taken a back seat once again. I like it. If you could let the Auburn faithful tap into our knowledge of this year's team on the Plain.

-- Jamie in Birmingham
Let's put it this way, Jamie. If Brandon Cox can stay healthy, you should stock up on toilet paper so you can join the celebration on Toomer's Corner.

As usual, Auburn projects to be outstanding on defense with Quentin Groves, Sen'Derrick Marks, Josh Thompson and emerging redshirt freshman Mike Blanc up front. LB Tray Blackmon can be a star if he stays out of trouble off the field, and the secondary figures to be very strong.

The doubt rests with the offense. The unit was merely average last season, and is now without Kenny Irons, Courtney Taylor, Ben Grubbs and Tim Duckworth.

Of course, Auburn always seems to be strong at running back, and Ben Tate could be very good if not outstanding. The receivers have to improve, but tight end will be a strong point.

No matter what the offensive issues are, I'd anticipate Auburn's offense will be OK if Cox stays healthy and plays well.

Of course, the schedule includes road games against LSU, Arkansas, Georgia and Florida, so matching last year's victory total of 11 will be difficult.

Looking for light in Boulder

Tell me something encouraging about my Buffs. Is there such a thing?

-- Jeffrey in Lakewood, Colo.
Pour yourself a drink, Jeffrey. Now look at the glass. It's half full.

Yeah, last season the Buffaloes were just 2-10. However, the main reason was a stagnant offense which was held to 14 points or fewer seven times.

The Buffs had to learn a different offense under Dan Hawkins, so that explains some of the problem. Colorado averaged just 9.8 points in its first five games, but averaged 21 in its last seven. That's progress.

Even more significant is Colorado will go into next season much more familiar with the new offense. Hawkins' son, Cody, will likely be the QB. I'm guessing he's knows the system pretty well.

Colorado will be better, although it might not show up right away because the early schedule is a grinder. Rival Colorado State, Arizona State, Florida State and Oklahoma are four of the first five opponents.

Olin Buchanan is the senior national college football writer for Rivals.com. To send him a question or comment for his Friday Mailbag, click here.

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